‘Barwon Heads was bad for my health’

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This case study is part of an investigative package. To read all about the issue, click on these stories:

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Sam Herbison says he had no choice but to leave his coastal home in Barwon Heads due to increasingly poor health.

The 27-year-old packed up his things and headed for Noosa a month ago after 23 years of living in Barwon Heads. His childhood home is tainted by the memories of ill health that he believes is tied to the local council’s former mosquito spraying program.

During a recent trip to America, Herbison was able to experience good physical health, which these days was uncommon for him. On returning to Barwon Heads, his health began to derail again. “I got back to Barwon Heads, and I just went downhill again so I thought I would get up to Queensland and see what happens with my health,” he said.

Herbison was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was 12. He became “pretty sick” at the age of 17 and then again in his early 20s. He is still battling the illness.

Previously, Herbison had managed the disease through diet but, after returning from America, he started experiencing excruciating pain. After numerous tests, doctors informed him it was likely he also had Lupus.

Both Lupus and Crohn’s disease are incurable autoimmune conditions that have been linked to the exposure of the chemical malathion. Between the mid-1980s to 2012 malathion was used but the City of South Barwon, and later the City of Greater Geelong, as a form of pest control.

Since the local Barwon Heads Discovery 3227 research group suggested there was an autoimmune and cancer cluster that had links with the mosquito spraying program, Herbison has lost trust in the council. “You kinda always put the trust in people like that, you think what they are doing is safe and as a kid especially you never question what they have been doing, but now it makes you question everything. For sure I have got less trust in them,” he said.

Herbison can recall there being school lunchtimes were students could not go outside as the council had just been spraying to control the mosquito population, but at the time he was not aware of the potential effects this could have on himself and his peers.

Growing up he experienced a typical Barwon Heads childhood. “Each night after school we would kick the footy, play basketball, cricket or go to the beach. I loved my sport, had a pretty good lifestyle growing up,” he said.

However, Herbison’s social life was impacted. “The thing I did miss out on growing up was more socially. I would get really tired, and I could not hang out with my friends. That definitely affected it,” he said.

But, Herbison was not alone. Many of his Barwon Heads Primary School peers have suffered from cancer and other illnesses. On the list of his fellow alumni is Georgie Stephenson, who passed away from leukemia in 2017.

Spending most of his life in Barwon Heads, Herbison knew many seemingly healthy people like himself, with no prior family history of these conditions, fall ill and some even passing away.

The reports linking the pesticides with the autoimmune and cancer conditions have almost come as a relief to some as they start to understand what may have happened. “For me, it explains a hell of a lot … I am so happy that Ross Harrison and the (Discovery 3227) team have done all that work,” he said.

The group’s research has centred around answering the question: Why are there so many sick people in Barwon Heads and how it can be managed in the future. Both the research group and its many supporters across the community have affirmed that they are not deliberately headhunting anyone on their quest for answers.

“It is going to make people a lot more careful in the future about pesticides and chemical exposure. What they have done is unbelievably good, I could not praise them enough,” Herbison said.

The repercussions are still unknown, and Herbison said it was better for him not think about it. “It has been good to get away from it all. My health has improved since I have been up here (in Noosa). I cannot see myself returning (to Barwon Heads) fully for quite a while,” he said.

The cause of these illnesses is yet to be proven, however Discovery 3227 is continuing to conduct research that seems to link malathion exposure to the illnesses in Barwon Heads.

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